VERBOORT — The steeple of Visitation Church rises on the quiet horizon. When the noon angelus bell sounds across the fields, family and hired workers at Sun Gold Farm know it’s time to pause for prayer and head in for lunch.
The 135 gently rolling acres, a former dairy become a chemical-free farm, have been tilled by Dutch Catholic farmers for 150 years. But alongside the deep traditions, Sun Gold is on a forefront of agriculture — eschewing chemical pesticides and herbicides and delivering produce directly to customers. Fruits and vegetables grown here get sold at farmer’s markets or are packed into sacks weekly for 500 subscribers.
It’s all the work of Vicki and Charlie Hertel and their grown children and not-so-grown grandchildren, all of whom make a living from the land.
“We’re having a ball farming together,” says Vicki, 57.
She grew up on the parcel and prefers to spend most of her time here.
Vicki’s father, Clarence Van Dyke, purchased the acreage in 1940 and efficiently ran a dairy for decades. He would constantly bend and pick weeds, even as he spoke with visitors. Clarence died five years ago, and Vicki has assumed his weeding ways. She hears his voice urging her on and comforting her as she walks the fields.
Clarence Van Dyke would often say “pax te cum,” in moments of levity or silliness. It was only years later that Vicki found out her father was saying “peace be with you,” in Latin. She wept with tenderness at the discovery.
Clarence was a longtime director of the famed Verboort sausage dinner, the sausage recipe having come from his mother. He also was choir director at Visitation Church, where his wife Eunice, and then daughter Vicki, played the organ.
Eunice Van Dyke, 94, still lives on Sun Gold Farm, where she cleans house and keeps an eye on the great-grandchildren.
Vicki was one of six siblings. She attended Visitation School and then St. Mary of the Valley (now Valley Catholic.) She loved the cows and worked the fields with her father.
The cows would need milking before she went on dates with future husband Charlie, who hailed from the neighboring town of Roy. She knew the man was a keeper when he volunteered to help with the chore. Vicki and Charlie have been married for 38 years.
Vicki and Charlie converted the dairy to a fruit, vegetable and flower farm in the mid-1990s. That’s when new water quality regulations would have prohibited a large number of cows so close to West Dairy Creek.
The produce thrives in fields naturally fertilized for decades by the previous cud-chewing occupants.
Vicki and Charlie’s children, Chris Hertel and Stephanie Ainsworth, are partners in the farm. Three generations are working the ground, even a couple of preschool girls who mostly have fun.
The adults put in 14-hour days much of the year, and the jobs range from tilling and planting to updating a web site and staffing farmers markets at Portland State University, Hollywood, Woodstock, Beaverton and Hillsdale.
“It’s pretty nice to have the whole family around for dinner,” says Vicki, the farm’s chief cook, in addition to greenhouse, harvest and childcare leader.
Visitors to Sun Gold Farm are greeted by two amiable, arthritic hounds. Past them, the farm offers more than 100 types of vegetables and 20 fruits, plus flowers. Seeds typically go into the greenhouses in February and are transferred to the fields in the spring. This year’s harvests are running two to three weeks late, but are not expected to be low.
In dairy work, the family lived milk check to milk check. Sustainably grown produce has been more lucrative.
The land includes a creek and wetland and is home to coyotes and foxes. Birds of prey keep rodents in check and the Hertels welcome swallows and their muddy nests, in part because the birds are so effective at consuming insects. Now and again, Vicki releases colonies of ladybugs, who feast on aphids and other pests that threaten produce.
The Hertels have one year-round farm hand, Chuy Gomez, a hard-working father of three girls. Rafael Cortez, known here as Ralphie, works seasonally. This spring, Cortez tried to break a new donkey named Jack so the children could ride him. It was not long before Cortez was flying through the air and into the farm’s rich soil. He dusted off, laughing, glad to have made an in-vain sacrifice for the Hertels.
The Catholic connections of the family are legion. Eunice is the niece of the late Father Ervin Vandehey and Father Scott Vandehey, recent pastor in Verboort, is Vicki’s cousin. Two of Charlie’s cousins — Sisters Catherine and Anna Hertel — are Sisters of St. Mary of Oregon. Steeped in her faith, Vicki is optimistic about the farm’s future. When she and Charlie decide to slow down, the place will be in good hands with their children, she says.
Vicki recalls her grandfather, Ed Vandehey, who spent his last years at the Sun Gold site when she was young. He was her buddy, teaching her to plant and buying her candy. She’s beside herself with joy now to be a companion for her own grandchildren, who some day might be responsible for these very fields.